Gritty, in-your-face vocals can sound awesome and really give you a nice edge to your rock production. But how do you get from a noisy, home recording to a raunchy rock vocals?
Lucky for you, there's only about nine steps involved that can take that bedroom recording to a rock god sound.
9-Step Process to a Professional Vocal
In one of my eBooks, Mixing Strategies, I lay out the steps you need to take to get a professional vocal sound. They are:
- Subtle Compression
- Subtractive EQ
- Processed Compression
- Make-Up EQ
- Reverb and Effects
- The Extra Mile
Since I usually practice what I preach I'm going to show you how to get from a noisy bedroom vocal to a processed, in-your-face rock sound using the aforementioned steps. I might sidestep that list just a little bit, but I will explain why.
Read the information below for the explanation behind each step, or skip to the video at the end where you can hear the process in action.
Step 1 – Editing
When it comes to home recordings, room sound is your enemy. It's never as present as in the silences between a vocalist's phrases. You can hear the background hum and noise from your computer. The key here is to cut it out. Either use strip silence to make your DAW guess where there is no sound, which usually works. Or, you can edit out the phrases themselves by simply muting the silences and using fades.
The third option, and a popular one, is to use noise gates that intelligently know when your signal is present. By tweaking the attack and release you can make sure it doesn't accidentally close in the middle of a breath.
What I've done is simply cut the silent regions out and used fades to make the transitions sound smoother. If you don't fade out the background noise makes the transitions sound abrupt.
You will notice in the video that when I add compression the noise floor becomes more noticeable. It's masked by the vocal and the backing track most of the time, but there's no reason to keep it while the singer isn't singing.
Step 2 – Subtle Compression
Many vocalists sound uneven and the first compressor is the typical peak compressor that's only compressing a half a dB or so. The singer actually knows how to use a microphone, and backs up when he starts screaming so the compressor doesn't go into overdrive . It only compressed about one dB more in the louder parts, which is pretty good.
The effect isn't so noticeable, but it helps in those parts where he starts screaming. The ratio could be higher, but I don't want it to be a peak limiter since you would normally put those at the end of the signal chain. This is just used to tame and smooth out the peaks of the vocal.
Step 3 – De-Essing
De-essing is an important part of making the vocal sound smooth. I don't always use it, but in this case the lyrics demanded it. There are a lot of esses and it was starting to sound a little lispy, especially after I added the EQ and Exciter in later parts of the mix.
The Logic De-Esser isn't my favorite, but it did the job this time. Normally the esses are around 7 kHz, in this case closer to 6.8 kHz. If you don't like the Logic De-esser or want to know how to make one with a simple compressor and EQ, check out my tutorial: How to Create a De-Esser from Scratch.
Step 4 – EQ
In my nine-step process above I mention subtractive EQ. In this case, I break my own rules and boost and cut in the same EQ for simplicity's sake. I add low-mid boost for thickness in the vocal. It gives the vocal a thicker, chestier character that's perfect for the rock sound I'm after.
I also add some around 500 Hz to bring out the fundamentals of the vocal. The vocal is quite nasally as well, probably due to poor mic placement and selection at the time, so I reduce the frequencies around 700 Hz and 1 kHz. Finally, to bring out some presence and clarity a boost in 3 kHz is in order.
EQ decisions aren't always made so scientifically. Mostly it's just a matter of scanning around, modifying the Q, cutting or boosting until you chance upon something good. It's good to know what type of “sound” a specific frequency range makes in order to get a good starting point, but you will always have to search around and tweak until it sounds good.
Step 5 - Exciter
Whenever I can't get the high-end of a vocal to cut through I use an Exciter. It's very subtle in this case, just adding a little bit of “silver” to the sound. In the context of the mix it adds just that little top to make the vocal sit better and cut through the rock guitars and drums.
Be careful with the amount of harmonics you add. Too much and it'll sound really odd, phasy and fake.
Step 6 – Processed Compression
Here is where the “punch” of the vocal comes in. I'm compressing the RMS level so it raised the overall level and compresses it more evenly than when you're using the peak setting. It's set to the Opto emulation which, if I'm not mistaken, is the LA2A emulation—a slow optical compressor that gives the sound a little more color than the transparent ones like VCA and FET.
I like compressing rock vocals pretty heavily, it gives them more edge and just sounds tighter somehow. The initial attack of the vocal gets through before the compressor clamps down but it does give the vocal a nice texture. The ratio is higher and the threshold is really low but it's only compressing about 8 dB, which isn't a massive amount for this type of sound. It's no Tom Lord-Alge Ultra Compression that's for sure.
Step 7 – Make-Up EQ
Sometimes compression after EQ can negate some of the effects that you did when you were boosting your frequencies. That way, by putting an EQ after the compressor you can make up for some of the frequency loss. In this case I've added some more presence to the 3 kHz range. It makes the vocal cut through the mix again.
Step 8 – Doubling
Since I don't have an actual double I resort to artificially doubling the vocal with a stereo delay. However, to make it stand out a bit more and to add more depth, I've added a pitch-shifter before the delay. It's only slightly detuning the vocals and the delay is set to 20 ms on one side and 30 on the other to create an even more exaggerated sense of doubling. Finally, to create separation it's a good idea to EQ the double slightly differently than the lead.
Step 9 – Delay and Effects
Adding space is the last thing I usually do to a vocal. A dry vocal never really sits well in the mix and just sounds tacked on and way too present. In this case I've added tape delay and tape saturation to make the vocal even grittier. Remember that I'm going for a rough sound so exaggerating the effects is on purpose. The compression at the start is simply used to tame the peaks and make sure the vocal sound overload the delay.
Here's the video of the changes I've made. I hope hearing all the processing in quick succession makes everything more understandable.
The Extra Mile
In the beginning of this tutorial I mentioned that the last step is the extra mile. The extra mile is that something you do to the vocal to make it stand out. In my case I think the saturated delay, exciter and overall grittiness is my “extra mile.”